The Weekly Standard Reviews The Blind Side

December 19th, 2009

Michael's Story
by John Podhoretz | The Weekly Standard

The Blind Side
Directed by John Lee Hancock

The new high school football movie, The Blind Side, is visually drab, poorly paced, and has a near-terminal case of the cutes. Writer-director John Lee Hancock jauntily pours corny humor down your throat in a fashion that will work like Ipecac on the cynical. Given these failings, you might be inclined to wonder why The Blind Side is the surprise blockbuster of 2009; sparsely advertised before its premiere and made for a relatively modest $29 million, Hancock's movie is well on its way to grossing more than $200 million.

The reason is simple. The Blind Side may be the nicest movie I've ever seen; certainly, it's one of the only genuinely nice movies made in America in the past 20 years. Michael Lewis, the peerless journalist of sports and finance, put its true story at the center of the movie in his bestselling 2006 book, The Blind Side–an interesting if overlong discussion of the changing face of football that is entirely overshadowed by his astonishing account of the salvation of a Memphis kid named Michael Oher.

The movie sensibly dispenses with the changing face of football and wisely concentrates on Michael. Quiet, gentle, and profoundly guarded, he is the son of a crack-addict mother and a father he never knew. At the age of 17, Michael (the touching Quinton Aaron) is a scrounger who finds himself accommodation on couches and cots, feeds himself with leftover popcorn, and tries to leave as little trace of himself as possible. This isn't easy, as he is a gargantuan 6' 7″ and 350 pounds, but he is amazingly fleet of foot, as the coach at a well-to-do private school called the Wingate Christian Academy discovers when he watches Michael play basketball.

Having been passed from grade to grade in public school without skills, Michael does not know even how to begin to learn. His teachers discover that he is paying attention and is taking in the information they are imparting, but they have no way of gauging his aptitude. One night, a wealthy school mom named Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock) spots Michael walking down the road, shivering in the same T-shirt and shorts he wears every day.

Leigh Anne orders him into the family car and takes him home to the family manse her husband's 85 fast-food franchises bought them. And then, slowly, and for no good reason other than that Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy are evidently two of the best people on this earth, they make Michael Oher into their third child.

The movie notes the Tuohy family's deep Christian faith, but it doesn't use that faith to explain the million kindnesses Leigh Anne and Sean and their two children, Collins and S.J., show toward Michael. Hancock does a skillful job of integrating Lewis's inspiring details of their acts of grace. When, after months of Michael's sleeping on their couch, Leigh Anne finally installs him in a guest bedroom with a futon, Michael says offhandedly that this is the first time he's ever had a bed.

Michael also seems like one of nature's noblemen–polite, neat, and thoughtful. But it is Leigh Anne who is the star of the story, and Sandra Bullock takes this glorious part and runs with it in a hugely enjoyable turn as a smart, sassy, flinty, determined, and entirely selfless steel magnolia. For the past few years, Bullock seemed like she was on her way to leading-lady oblivion in the manner of her fellow late-'90s winsomette, Meg Ryan. But suddenly, at age 45, she is contending with Meryl Streep (age 60) as the leading box-office draw in America. Like Streep, who is a much greater actress, Bullock seems to have found a new looseness and zing in her performing, and audiences can't get enough of it: Bullock's The Proposal came out of nowhere in June to earn $160 million.

The only real injustice here is that Hancock has tilted the story of Michael's reclamation entirely toward Leigh Anne and turned Sean Tuohy into a supporting player. In Lewis's account, Sean is every bit Leigh Anne's heroic equal, though she is the person who finds the way into Michael's emotional confidence. (The country singer Tim McGraw, who has delivered fiery and stunning supporting performances in Friday Night Lights and The Kingdom, is entirely lovable and surprisingly soft here.)

A crucial part of the Michael Oher story, both in the book and the movie, has to do with the inability of the world around him and the Tuohys to believe people would act in this manner simply out of the goodness of their hearts. The NCAA assumes that the Tuohys, who met at the University of Mississippi, and who are devoted to the school, have taken Michael on because they are boosters illicitly directing goods Michael's way. But as Lewis writes, “If the Tuohys were Ole Miss boosters–and they most certainly were–they had violated the letter of every NCAA rule ever written. They'd given Michael more than food, clothing, and shelter. They'd given him a life.”

Michael Lewis is as cool-eyed a writer as there is, as his accounts of Wall Street perfidy demonstrate; but as this passage indicates, even he is reduced to straight-on, unironic deep sentiment in describing the nobility of this family. In an afterword to the paperback edition, Lewis says that “the initial reactions to this book were as bizarre and self-contradictory as any I've experienced as a writer,” in particular when “a few reviewers” read it as a tale of how white people only dealt with black people in order to exploit them. That Michael Oher was not dead, or in jail, or living on the Memphis streets, but alive and well and playing football for Ole Miss, was, to them, a species of tragedy. A tragedy with a happy ending.

Unsurprisingly, the same theme was picked up by reviewers of the film as well, with A.O. Scott of The New York Times leading the way in dismissively describing The Blind Side as the story of a “wealthy, white Southern family” that “adopts a poor black teenager, cultivating his athletic gifts and providing him with the comfort and safety of a happy, loving home.” Scott finds appalling how Michael's “pre-Tuohy life is a flurry of flashbacks and vague stories meant–like that drug dealer and Michael's drug-addicted mother, who appears on screen briefly–to conjure a world of violence, dysfunction and despair.”

Except that was Michael Oher's story, as Lewis's book makes clear in far greater and more dismaying detail than Hancock's movie. That is the world from which Michael Oher was rescued. The horror of it only makes the kindness the Tuohys show–kindness that is anything but “impulsive,” as Scott describes it, given that it took place over many years and is evidently still taking place–all the more staggering in its beneficence.

Scott is right about one thing. The Blind Side is not a very good movie. But it tells a great, and great-souled, story, and how often do you get one of those?

John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard's movie critic.